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Student Composer Meshes Two Musical Traditions

Senior Harish Eswaran on the magic of music joining Western and Indian traditions

Harish Eswaran spent his senior year at Duke bringing music to life. For his senior project, the biology and music major composed his first large-scale piece, Carnatic Concerto, which merges two styles of violin. While performing the work for the first time, Eswaran played the violin in the traditional western style and also in the classical tradition of South India called Carnatic violin.

“The violinists [in India] would actually play while seated,” Eswaran said. “The way you learn music, it’s more of an oral tradition. Your instructor would play a certain fragment of a melody from a song and you would try and imitate their inflections and their ornamentation.”

This spring, Eswaran performed the piece in public with Abigail Lin ('15) and Michael Lin ('16) playing violin, Won-Ji Lee ('16) playing cello and Robertson Scholar Arjun Raghavan ('17) playing mridangam, a double-headed drum that originated in southern India.

While merging both traditions into a single piece was challenging, Eswaran said his music training at Duke under noted composer Stephen Jaffe broadened his perspective.

“At Duke I’ve learned that music is continually being composed, being expressed, and it can relate to the way we live today in the modern world,” Eswaran said. “I hope that the audience can see that there’s lots of different ways to play an instrument. And (the audience learns) how to appreciate all the different musical styles that are out there in the world.”

Eswaran will graduate with honors and highest distinction in music on May 10 and plans to attend medical school at the Baylor College of Medicine. He hopes to play in the doctors’ orchestra in Texas and to continue writing and listening to music.